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Year in Review: Clouds Open Up for New Processors

January 10, 2017

Author: Jag Bolaria

In 2016, signs of viable alternatives to Intel emerged as Cavium and AppliedMicro reached early production of ARMv8 server processors and Qualcomm delivered samples. IBM is also taking a run at Intel by selling Power chips on the merchant market for the first time and by expanding the OpenPower Foundation. Perhaps the biggest threat to the status quo is AMD’s next-generation x86 chips based on the Zen microarchitecture. All of these vendors estimate their newest server processors will reach production by early 2018.

These ARM-based products will address a rapidly evolving server market. Hyperscale data centers and cloud computing are changing server require­ments and the whole supply chain. Cloud servers are increasing efficiency by using accelerators to offload the host processor. Early accelerators were based on FPGAs, and over time, vendors will develop more-optimized accelerators for specific workloads. Big data is leading to neural networks that can analyze information to make inferences for many tasks, including image searches, stock-market predictions, medical diagnostics, and advanced driver-assistance systems. These changes will move some cloud-computing revenue from general-purpose processors to specialized accelerators and SoCs.

Server OEMs are desperate for an alternative to Intel’s high-price offerings, whether it’s from AMD or another vendor. They are also seeking innovative technologies that increase their value. Gen-Z is a good example of a non-Intel development for the server platform. Intel’s 3D XPoint memory technology could deliver another platform-level advance, but its deployment is far behind schedule.

These changes create opportunities for new vendors to enter the market with processors and coprocessors. The next-generation ARMv8 and Power9 chips offer competitive alternatives to the dominant Xeon. The emergence of AMD’s Naples could reduce demand for ARMv8 server processors, as customers can more easily port software to another x86 processor than to a new architecture. 

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